Working to Preserve Traditional Gospel Music

AP Photo/Ron Frehm
The golden age of gospel music overlapped with the civil rights movement, yet approximately 75 percent of the music has already been lost, its records destroyed, undocumented, and thrown away over generations. At Oxford American, Will Bostwick writes about historian Robert Darden’s efforts to collect, catalogue, and digitize what’s left in the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, an archive at Baylor University in Texas. So how did so much of gospel get lost?

Ask them why, and the answer gets complicated. “Part of it is racism,” Darden says. “Part of it is economic.” Part of it has to do with the consolidation in the music industry (some record companies hold the copyrights to these songs, but, lacking financial incentive, don’t make them available in any form). And the last part, as he sees it, is the religious aspect of this music. Marovich put it to me this way: “When I was growing up, there was always, in our neighborhood, a couple of guys in white shirts and black ties that wanted to talk to you about Jesus. And you wanted to run the opposite direction from those guys. . . . Gospel is a little frightening to the unknowledgeable.”

In February of 2005, Darden wrote an op-ed in the New York Times lamenting the loss of these treasures from gospel’s golden age: “It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music,” he writes. “It would be a sin.” The apparent imbalance of that remark stuck with me. By any honest standard, we sin regularly. A cultural disaster seems like a much more grievous affair. But I also had the feeling that he was onto something—that the loss of this music was a moral failing born out of a history of oppression and neglect. He explained to me that when he wrote that, he had in mind Jim Wallis’s (at the time controversial) claim that racism was America’s original sin.

The day the op-ed came out, Charles Royce, an investor from New York with no particular ties to gospel music, called Darden and asked what needed to be done to save what remained of the music. With Royce’s funding, and with the institutional support of Baylor University libraries, Darden and his colleagues started the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. In a 2007 interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Darden said, “We see it as kind of like those seed banks up around the Arctic Circle that keep one copy of every kind of seed there is in case there’s another Dutch elm disease. I just want to make sure that every gospel song, the music that all American music comes from, is saved.”

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